This off-the-shelf quadcopter streams live video from its two built-in cameras directly to your iPhone or iPad, which also acts as a controller. (Parrot AR Drone / manufacturer photo)
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Army Spc. Michael Cook loves flying drones. Even after amassing more than 600 hours of flight time piloting an RQ-7 Shadow for 12 hours a day from a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2011, the first thing he did after getting home was try to figure out how to build his own.
"They're just so much fun — who wouldn't want to have their own drone?" Cook says. It didn't take him long to find a thriving online community of amateur builders who couldn't agree more.
"I was shocked to find all these civilians who were building all these amazing UAVs," he says. "It's insane that I could be downrange flying an aircraft that does all this amazing stuff and get home and, if I wanted, build a UAV that could do exactly the same thing. It's awesome."
Now in the Individual Ready Reserve, Cook has built several unmanned aerial vehicles and has taken his love to the next level with a job working for the University of Alaska's growing UAV program.
"We are entering the Drone Age," declares Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine until late last year and now a leader in what he believes will be no less of a revolution than those ushered in by the home computer and Internet.
Already, garage-turned-hangarbay tinkerers are flying thousands of drones, many of which rival — or even exceed — the capability of military-grade UAVs. Except, of course, when it comes to "blowing stuff up," Anderson notes.
And while until relatively recently these autonomous aerial escapades largely have been the work of uber-geeks, just about anyone now can field a drone.
Whether you build one yourself or buy any one of a growing fleet of off-the-shelf models, it's the dawn of a new era of personally owned UAVs.
Back to the future
To understand the future of drones, you need to look at the history of computers, Anderson argues. Indeed, decades before computers became "personal," they were the domain of the military and top scientists.
"We're talking about three technologies — computing, then the Internet and now drones — that came from the military and big top-down companies and were taken over by amateurs and a bottom-up entrepreneurial spirit that ultimately defined the future of those industries," Anderson says. "We forget that computers were a military technology. We forget that the Internet was a military technology, and if we do our job right, one day people will forget that drones were once a military technology."
Already, drones are being adopted by law enforcement agencies as inexpensive eye-in-the-sky alternatives to manned aircraft. That's left many with an Orwellian-case of the creeps, not to mention serious concerns about privacy.
But as drones become more common, Anderson claims it soon will be hard to imagine life without our own fleets of flying bots.
Umm … why?
So besides the inherent cool factor, why in the world would you want your own drone?
Good question, Anderson says. In fact, it's the same question people asked, not so long ago, about the computer. And the answer is coming from the same kinds of do-it-yourselfers who took computers out of big government labs and put them into homes, laps and hands.
"Like the Homebrew Computing Club — which led to the Apple II, which led to the Macintosh, which led to the personal computer revolution — we don't know what all this is for," Anderson says. "We don't know what the killer app is going to be."
But he knows it will be big. "Many applications that no one has even thought of yet will emerge out of all this entrepreneurial energy."
For now, Emery Chandler Jr. just knows they're fun. He started flying remote-controlled model airplanes in high school. More recently, the 19-year-old son of an east Texas rancher has been building his own UAVs while waiting to ship out for Air Force basic training in mid-February.
"The fun is in the building. I feel like Dr. Frankenstein, building his creation. When it comes to life, it's very rewarding. Once you figure it all out and it's up there flying, it really is a thrill," Chandler says.
He has been experimenting with foam electric planes built by Dynam and modified to paradrop Pringles cans.
He's also working on a low-budget design made of foam board and tape. After installing a simple battery-operated engine, basic remote control parts and servos, and the UAV autopilot "brains," he estimates his total cost at around $205. After basic training, he wants to build a balloon-borne mothership for a fleet of microcopters.
"Anyone can jump into this," he says. "All you really need is a basic understanding of computers and the ability to fly RC aircraft."
It's even easier if you don't want to build your own.
"We're reaching the tipping point where really anyone can do this," says Kyle Allred, an Army veteran who now works as a support specialist with Quadrocopter. The Montana-based company sells ready-to-fly drones and advanced RC aircraft mostly to professional photographers and filmmakers but is expanding to cater to hobbyists and "prosumer" enthusiasts.
"It's getting easier and easier. Even two years ago, it was hard to do any of this without getting completely geeked out, but now you can be up and flying in a weekend."
Anderson got his own start in personal UAVs during a weekend project gone bad with his kids in 2007. His lofty plan was to build a Lego Mindstorm kit, the toy company's first foray into robotics, and then tackle an RC plane Wired had sent him to review.
The Lego bots were too boring, his kids quickly pronounced, and the plane was too complicated. During a run to blow off steam, he says, he got to thinking about a mashup of the projects. Within a few weeks, he'd hacked the two technologies enough to know that he was onto something.
Since then, he has launched two startups that grew out of that effort: DIY Drones, an online hub for hobbyists and amateur builders, and its commercial counterpart, 3D Robotics, which serves as the community's general store with its own line of autopilots and other gear.
For those familiar with, say, a battlefield drone such as the RQ-11 Raven, Anderson says, "we're already well past the Raven's capability on the hobby side. Ours can be completely autonomous, including takeoff and landings, scripted missions, artificial intelligence, autonomous camera control, follow-me functions.
"In terms of features, the hobbyists are well past the pros at this point. Where they differ is cost, by orders of magnitude. Ours cost about $500 — that's about 1 percent of the cost of a Raven."
Aside from the defense and big aerospace companies that build UAVs for the military and other government agencies, Anderson says about a dozen manufacturers now cater to hobbyists and the fledgling civilian market.
His company has sold more than 30,000 autopilots alone. Given backups and replacements, he estimates that 10,000 ArduPilot-guided planes and copters are in the air. "That's larger than the size of the military UAV fleet," about 7,500 aircraft.
And at the moment, the company's growth is doubling annually.
It's no surprise that in November, Anderson left Wired and turned his part-time projects into a full-time passion, already drawing $5 million from investors eager to get in on the action.
It's easy to get a glimpse of where this is heading. Just do a quick search on YouTube to see the stunning HD footage and pictures captured by amateur drones everywhere from ski slopes to farm fields.
"Take one of these things, pop a GoPro camera on it, and you've got mind-blowing footage. It will make you very popular," Anderson says.
"You can imagine uses with a follow-me sticker on your kid's soccer ball and his matches being filmed like an NFL game. That hasn't happened yet, but only because we haven't gotten the follow-me stickers small enough yet to put on a soccer ball and robust enough to be kicked by a child. But that's coming."
One dad in rural Vermont recently built his own drone to follow his grade-school son 400 yards from his house to the school bus stop. Using one of 3D Robotics' autopilots connected to a quadcopter, Paul Wallich designed his prototype to follow a beacon in his kid's backpack.
A smartphone strapped to the bottom sends real-time imagery to his computer via a standard video chat app. When his son gets on the bus, the drone returns to base. It was just for fun, wrote Wallich for Inside Technology's IEEE Spectrum, where he's a contributing editor, but he's already considering upgrades to his homebrew drone.
Smartphones with wings
"There are two things I know for sure," Anderson says. "Drones are basically smartphones with wings, so like smartphones, these things are going to get smaller, cheaper, faster, better. The second thing is that commercial use is coming."
The Federal Aviation Administration restricts drones mostly to hobbyists but will open commercial use starting in 2015.
"A lot of people are interested in security applications," Anderson says. "Personally, I'm really interested in areas like agriculture, where you can use drones to do aerial surveys of crops on a daily basis. That's something farmers are dying for but don't have affordable access."
While some developers even have experimented with fast-food delivery using UAVs, don't expect a taco-copter or burger-bomber anytime soon.
"It's good fun and an interesting thought experiment, but it's the last thing that's going to be legal because that would tend to be in built-up urban areas around lots of people, and that's the last place you want drones."
One company that is using his drones, however, is experimenting with FedEx-style delivery systems, particularly for rural areas and underdeveloped countries.
"There are some things I can't talk about yet, because we have commercial partners that are working on it, that are going to be mind-blowing."
He hints, though, at the possibilities of drones moving from, say, filming entertainment to becoming part of the show.
"We already have swarming capacity, the ability to fly multiple drones simultaneously," Anderson says. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, recently posted jaw-dropping video with swarms of 20 microquadcopters — each about the size of an outstretched hand — flying in intricate formations, Anderson says.
"So you could imagine 300 drones in the air at once, with each one acting as a kind of pixel in a 3-D floating screen."